Writing about his time as a lookout in a fire tower, Norman Maclean wrote: “It doesn’t take much in the way of body and mind to be a lookout. It’s mostly soul.” Well, Philip Connors’ memoir about being a lookout contains about as much soul as a James Brown song. That is to say, a lot.
I purchased this book on my way down from a picturesque mountain-top wedding in Grand Lake, Colorado. A friend and neighbor had been discussing it in the context of the fires that were burning in and around Colorado Springs at the time. At my obligatory stop at The Tattered Cover in Denver, the booksellers had helpfully merchandised “Fire Season” throughout the store. TC is a lovely independent bookstore, but they are also marketers. Good for them.
The author is a “lookout” who spends five months a year on top of a mountain looking for forest fires. He says that “between five and fifteen times a year” he is the first person to spot a fire. His memoir captures the loneliness, ecstasy and peacefulness that he feels in the Gila National Forest in a lookout tower. He reflects, muses, recounts stories, explains environmental history, and just generally writes a fine book about an experience that not many people share.
Despite mostly being about solace on top of a mountain, Connors’ book includes touching stories about his wife and brother and friends. His writing about these relationships is as descriptive as his prose about smoke or weather or mountains. It seems his time in the tower reflecting has allowed him to better understand his connections to others more than some of us ever do. The relationships in this book are deep and rich, but they appear only fleetingly, on a minority of the pages, and he is left alone to reflect on encounters and past conversations. In a way, they are like many of the fires he discovers.
It is difficult to dwell on his writing without just quoting sentence after sentence. So I won’t, but this once. At the end of the book, Connors calls this book his poem. And his language is poetic at times:
“Clearly I am not alone in my communion here with the sky. Far from it. The ravens and vultures have me beat by 200 feet, the Mogollons by most of a millennium. And who’s to say the motes of dust don’t feel joy, if only for a moment, as they climb up into the sky and ride the transport winds?”
As much as I’ve been tempted at times in my life to “seek out the mountaintop”—this being a friend’s phrase for trying to solve a major life problem by engaging in deep reflection—I’m not sure I could literally seek out the mountaintop in the way that Connors does. I know myself well enough to know that I can be alone and enjoy solitude, as long as I know that I have control over when that solitude ends. I also know myself well enough to know that if I arrived at a cabin full of rat shit on a mountain that I must share with wasps known as “tarantula hawks” then I might light my own forest fire in hopes of being quickly rescued.
I read this book with deep admiration and gratitude that Connors could describe his experience so clearly that it felt like I was there on the mountain with him at times. I’m thankful for this because now if I ever become delusional and think I want to go live alone on a mountain for four months, I’ll instead simply consult this book.
I would happily recommend this for anyone interested in the art of reflection, the environment, forest policy, and really for anyone who is interested in a very personal story of a man who chooses to live a very different life than most of us.
One note–I encourage you to check out Connors’ Harper Collins website for the book trailer. (This is a new phenomenon, book trailers.) There are no pictures with the book, a forgivable error, as Connors paints the picture brilliantly. But the few shots of his cabin and tower add a great deal to how you envision his experience in your mind.
Thanks for reading.